On a plastic bench near the snack bar, Big Willis laces up his skates. It’s around midnight, a few hours before the competition begins. Slow jams pour from the DJ booth. Competitors practice their spins, drops, and dips in the center of the floor as hundreds of other skaters revolve around them.
Wearing a sly smile and graying goatee, Big Willis rolls onto the smooth wooden floor. He’s decked out in a long-sleeve, button-down black shirt and a porkpie hat, the uniform of his Master Rollers skate club. On the rink, he glides along backwards to greet friends, cruising through a crowd of competitors young enough to be his children or grandchildren.
Big Willis—aka Willis Epps Sr.—is 60 years old and stands 5-foot-4. His nickname, which is familiar to just about everyone in the crowd crammed into Baltimore’s Shake N Bake roller rink, serves mainly to distinguish him from his 40-year-old son, Willis Epps Jr. As it happens, Lil’ Willis stands 5-foot-5. He’s here, too, clad in a button-down white shirt emblazoned with the logo of his Midnight Rollers, a train with the face of a clock.
In a few hours, father and son, the leaders of two of D.C.’s greatest skating squads, will take the floor in Kollage Entertainment’s Total Trick Explosion Competition, in the dual trick and trios categories, respectively.
For now, though, the scene is more like a cross between a roller-rink birthday party and a dance club. Skaters zoom around the perimeter, with knees, hips and shoulders moving to the thumping bass line. Groups link hands, moving as a single train—maintaining their straight lines even when the first skater in line drops into a tuck, or lifts a leg out in front and kicks it in and out to the beat. Couples skate side by side in lockstep, breaking apart only to throw in ballroom dance moves.
Tonight’s crowd includes about a dozen D.C.-area skate clubs, which are like fraternities or sororities on wheels. The women of Butterflys-N-Unity don pleated red-plaid skirts, white tank tops, and red neckties. M.A.D. Unity is rolling with simple white shirts and black pants.
Events like tonight’s used to be a lot more common. Style skating, an athletic, fluid mash-up of roller-skating and dancing, was born at segregation-era skate nights in black communities throughout the country in the 1950s and 1960s. But D.C.’s biggest rinks closed in the 1980s. Today, skaters like Big Willis are apt to drive longer and longer distances to show their stuff. And the first generation of style skaters is dying out, taking a piece of African-American cultural history with them.
Epps says part of his life’s work is to pass along his legacy to younger generations. But only part. First, he has a competition to win. And as things get going, he pronounces himself confident. He’s got a move the young bucks won’t be able to touch. “Mostly,” he says, “they know me for the split.”
Big Willis moved to Washington in 1968, at age 17. Before that, he says, he’d never seen roller skates before. Epps had been raised, mostly by his grandmother, in Garysburg, N.C. Money was tight; Epps picked cotton for 15 cents an hour. He left home at age 14, picking tobacco on a farm in exchange for some spending money and a shed to sleep in.
In D.C., something clicked when a cousin took Big Willis to the old National Arena Roller Rink, on Kalorama Road NW—known simply as Kalorama. After a few clumsy revolutions, he recalls, he thought: “I’m going to get good at this.” He started skating, once a day, twice on weekends, basically any time he wasn’t working as a dishwasher or cook’s helper, his first jobs when he moved to the District.
Within three months, Big Willis could hang with the fastest skaters in the rink. He became a floor guard, a cross between lifeguard and bouncer, at the sprawling Alexandria Arena, which could fit 3,000 people. Among them was Lil’ Willis’ mother, Claudell Epps, who Big Willis first met skating. By the time Lil’ Willis was two, mom and dad had him on skates as well.
Alexandria was knocked down in 1987; a hotel now stands in its place, at the corner of Madison and N. St. Asaph streets. Kalorama, thanks to its historic art-deco façade, was luckier: The building, if not the skating, was preserved. Today, the structure holds a Harris Teeter grocery store that serves a gentrified swath of Adams Morgan.
Big Willis and Claudell Epps split up when Lil’ Willis was young. The senior Epps, who owns and operates Epps Fleet Automotive, a mobile-mechanic service, now has nine children from five mothers, he says. But while his family life has sometimes been tumultuous, skating has been a constant. He’s won so many skating trophies over the past 43 years that he no longer keeps track of what the awards stashed on a coffee table in the back of his living room are all for.